Tathāgatagarbha Across Asia:

The Reception of an Influential Mahāyāna Doctrine in Central and East Asia

Organized by Professor Klaus-Dieter Mathes

Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, Universität Wien

Tathāgatagarbha doctrine and the concept of buddha-nature continue to be of interest to academics, traditional scholars, and practitioners of Buddhism around the world, and a recent series of books, articles, and meetings have brought new energy and interesting information to light that requires continued discussion and analysis. To that end, Tsadra Foundation partners with the University of Vienna to host a symposium on the topic.

The tathāgatagarbha doctrine, which proposes that all sentient beings are already a “buddha within,” or at least have the potential to attain buddhahood, was first largely ignored in Indian scholastic Buddhism, but increasingly attracted the attention of Mahāyāna scholars and became an important, if sometimes controversial, current of Buddhist thought throughout Central and East Asia. With the Mahāyāna goal of establishing all sentient beings in buddhahood, the possibility of enlightenment became a Buddhist axiom of central importance. Either one has to explain the causal process of buddhahood’s production, or accept its primordial existence, for example in terms of a buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha). The latter also applies, of course, when buddhahood is not taken to be produced from scratch. The way the process of becoming a buddha is addressed is an ideal touchstone for systematically comparing the philosophical hermeneutical positions of various masters in Central and East Asia. The diversity of views on buddha-nature has its roots already in early Indian Buddhism; depending on whether one follows the original intent of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtras, or the Yogācāra interpretation of the latter, buddha-nature can refer to either an already fully developed buddha, or the naturally present potential (prakṛtisthāgotra) or natural luminosity of mind, i.e., sentient beings’ ability to become buddhas. In Madhyamaka, buddha-nature was taken either as a teaching of provisional meaning (neyārtha) or simply a synonym of emptiness (i.e., a non-affirming negation).

This symposium will look at the differing forms tathāgatagarbha doctrine assumed as its primary Indian scriptural sources were translated and transmitted throughout Central and East Asia and variously interpreted by religious schools in line with their key philosophical positions. The contributions range from the historical-philological analysis of the primary sources to issues of reconstruction and comparison in the target languages and cultures with particular attention to the role the tathāgatagarbha doctrine played in the development of Buddhist philosophical and religious views in India and beyond.

University of Vienna: Locations

Alte Kapelle

Evening Welcome Event & Keynote

Seminar Room 1 – Entrance 2.7

All other sessions


Keynote Speaker

Donald S. Lopez, Jr.

University of Michigan

Donald Lopez is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000. His most recent translations, both with Thupten Jinpa, are Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (the Gtam rgyud gser gyi thang ma of A mdo Dge ‘dun chos ‘phel) and Ippolito Desideri’s refutation of rebirth and emptiness, Dispelling the Darkness: A Jesuit’s Quest for the Soul of Tibet. His translation of the famous grub mtha’ of Lcang skya rol pa’i rdo rje will appear in the Fall.

Tathāgatagarbha: A Brief History

A term of indefinite meaning and uncertain origin, tathāgatagarbha is one of the most inspiring, provocative, and controversial concepts in the vast literature of Buddhism. Variously interpreted as the promise of buddhahood for all, the promise of buddhahood for some, and a provisional teaching for those intimidated by emptiness, it has generated commentary from across the Mahāyāna world among many of the most influential masters of India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan. This lecture will seek to provide an overview of the history and influence of tathāgatagarbha.


Klaus-Dieter Mathes

University of Vienna

Prof. Dr. Klaus-Dieter Mathes is the Head of the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna. His current research deals with Tibetan Madhyamaka, Yogācāra and the interpretations of Buddha nature from the 14th to the 16th century. He obtained a Ph.D. from Marburg University with a study of the Yogācāra text Dharmadharmatāvibhāga (published in 1996 in the series Indica et Tibetica). His habilitation thesis was published by Wisdom Publications under the title A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsawa´s Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Boston: 2008). Recent publications include The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet (SUNY, 2019) and A Fine Blend of Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka. Maitrīpa’s Collection of Texts on Non-conceptual Realization (Amanasikāra) (Vienna, 2015). He is also a regular contributor to the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies.

Zhang ston Bsod nams grags pa’s Defense of Dol po pa’s Clear-Cut Distinction between Buddha Nature and the Ground Consciousness

Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan’s (1292-1361) doctrinal position is well known for its clear-cut distinction between an ultimate, unconditioned buddha-nature, which is identical with the ultimate and buddhahood, and the conditioned ground consciousness (ālayavijñāna), including all saṃsāric states of mind emerging from it. This strict distinction excludes from the ultimate anything dependently arisen. Dol po pa’s disciple Zhang ston Bsod nams grags pa (1292-1370) defends his master’s view by addressing opposing statements in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra and the Gaṇḍavyūha­sūtra that equate buddha-nature with the ground consciousness. Zhang ston’s discussion constitutes the major part of the introduction to his commentary on the Tathāgata­garbha­sūtra, and is in large part also contained in his Ratnagotravibhāga commentary.

In the present paper it will be shown how Zhang ston elaborates, on the basis of numerous passages from the Maitreya Works, the Avikalpapraveśadhāraṇī, the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśa, and even other parts of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra itself, that one faces eight undesired consequences if one does not strictly differentiate buddha-nature from the ground consciousness. Zhang ston not only argues against a position that I could identify in ‘Gos Lo tsā ba gZhon nu dpal’s (1392-1481) Ratnagotravibhāga commentary, i.e., an exegetical system that regards buddha-nature and adventitious stains as not ontologically different, any more than ocean water and its waves are, but also the Third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje’s (1284-1339) Yogācāra-based distinction between the ground consciousness and the pure mind (i.e., the equivalent of buddha-nature) that accepts within the basis of negation a dependently arising perfect nature.


Filippo Brambilla

University of Vienna

Filippo Brambilla is a PhD candidate at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies of the University of Vienna. He is currently writing his dissertation on Tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho (1880–1940), a late Jo nang scholar whose philosophical works are characterized by a distinctive approach that reconciles typically rang stong positions with more orthodox Jo nang views. Filippo’s PhD thesis will include a complete edition and translation of Tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho’s Illuminating Light (Rab gsal snang). Recently, Filippo also started working as a researcher in the FWF funded project “Emptiness of Other (gZhan stong) in the Early Jo nang Tradition.” He holds a BA and an MA in Languages and Cultures of Eastern Asia, with specialization in Chinese language and culture, from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Filippo has also spent long periods of study and research in China and Eastern Tibet.

Empty of True Existence, Yet Full of Qualities. Tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho (1880–1940) on Buddha Nature.

Without ever straying more than a few kilometres from the valleys of the ‘Dzam thang area of southern A mdo where he was born, a stronghold of the Jo nang tradition, Tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho (1880–1940) had a very sedentary life. Still, he was exposed to a broad range of philosophical views through teachers, such as ‘Ba’ mda’ dGe legs (1844-1904) and Ngag dbang chos ‘byor (1846-1910), who also appreciated dGe lugs scholasticism and who had studied with some of the most prominent bKa’ brgyud and rNying ma authorities of the 19th century, such as Kong sprul (1813–1899), dPal sprul (1808–1887), and Mi pham (1846–1912). This paper examines how this broad range of views translated to Tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho’s position on the polarizing topic of buddha-nature. On the basis of key passages from two of his major philosophical works, the Illuminating Light (Rab gsal snang) and Removing the Anguish of Holding to Extremes (mThar ‘dzin gdung ‘phrog), I will argue that he sought to harmonize the orthodox perspective of his own tradition on this subject with that, essentially opposite, of the dGe lugs pas. In line with the latter, Tshogs gnyis rgya mtsho presents buddha-nature as immanent in all sentient beings inasmuch as it is nothing but the mind’s emptiness of inherent existence that is determined through logical-analytical investigation. On the other hand, he does not depart from the fundamental view of Dol po pa (1292–1361) and elaborates on that same buddha-nature qua emptiness in positive terms. Accordingly, he maintains that, once it is directly realized in the meditative equipoise of the noble ones of Mahāyāna in which all adventitious stains are naturally exhausted, buddha-nature becomes manifests as primordially existent, replete with qualities, and transcending all conceptual elaborations.

Martina Draszczyk

University of Vienna

Martina Draszczyk holds a PhD in Buddhist Studies and Tibetology. Her doctoral thesis at the Department for South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies of the University of Vienna dealt with the integration of the notion of buddha-nature in meditation practice. She trained in Buddhist philosophy and meditation with both Tibetan Buddhist and Theravāda teachers and acted as an interpreter for Tibetan masters for many years. In her research projects she focuses on Tibetan Madhyamaka, Mahāmudrā, and buddha-nature theories mainly in the context of the Bka’ brgyud tradition. She also teaches in Buddhist centers in Europe as well as in the field of secular mindfulness.

Buddha Nature as Seen by Early Bka’ brgyud Masters

Sgam po pa (1079-1153), whose way of teaching had such an impact on his disciples that the traditions evolving from them were all summed up under the umbrella Dwags po Bka’ brgyud, is well known for his Precious Ornament of Liberation (Thar pa rin po che’i rgyan). He begins this Mahāyāna manual by emphasizing that the very basis for the spiritual process culminating in awakening is *sugatagarbha and proceeds to identify buddha-nature with emptiness. On a first glance this seems to resemble presentations of buddha-nature from a negating perspective. However, in a number of his other teachings recorded by his disciples and collected in his gSung ‘bum, he is very specific in his understanding of mind’s emptiness. In his “Excellent Qualities, Teachings to the Assembly” (Tshogs chos yon tan phun tshogs), he points out that mind is not mere essencelessness, but rather coemergent wisdom which he in turn equates with natural awareness (tha mal gyi shes pa), both key terms of Bka’ brgyud Mahāmudrā. While Sgam po pa rather uses this terminology and hardly ever the term buddha-nature, La yag pa (12 c.), one of his immediate disciples, explicitly equates nonarising, coemergent wisdom, and natural awareness with buddha-nature imbued with inconceivable buddha qualities. A century later, during the time of the Third Karma pa (1284–1339), it had become standard that Bka’ brgyud masters equated natural awareness with buddha-nature endowed with qualities while simultaneously refraining from attributing any substantial quality to it. This paper’s intention is to take a closer look at the early masters and explore how their meditation-oriented approach is based in both affirming buddha-nature as the ground and goal of Buddhist soteriology and avoiding its reification into an entity with real properties.

Khenpo Thampel

University of Vienna

Khenpo Tamphel is a highly knowledgeable Buddhist scholar and translator. He is the main translator for the Ratnaśri Translation Group, headed by His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, which regularly translates for 84000. He is also the Research Officer for the Songtsen Library, an important institution and resource for Buddhist Studies.

The Difference Between a Sentient Being and a Buddha: ’Jig rten gsum mgon’s Instruction on the Process of Confusion.

This paper will present the text Phyag chen ’khrul pa rtsad gcod ’khrul lugs ngos ’dzin gyi gdams pa (A Mahāmudrā Investigation into Confusion: An Instruction for Identifying the Process of Confusion) by ’Jig rten gsum mgon. This text explains what differentiates sentient beings from buddhas and how they are ultimately inseparable. The disciple Mkhan po Bzod pa asks his teacher to clarify where confusion comes from and which came first: a buddha or a sentient being. ’Jig rten gsum mgon answers that neither came first, that there is no difference in terms of time between the two, and that the first buddha is the primordial buddha (ādibuddha), which is the dharmatā (chos nyid), and the first sentient being is the dharmin (chos can). The dharmatā and dharmin is the basis of all (kun gzhi). He explains that the dharmatā exists within all sentient beings, and their confusion is caused by not recognizing that this dharmatā exists within them. Recognizing this dharmatā is to become a buddha according to ’Jig rten gsum mgon. This is a profound text that shows how sentient beings and buddhas are related, how confusion arises that leads to saṃsāra, and how recognition of the true nature of sentient beings is the way to enlightenment. We will discuss the major points of this text and how dharmatā is related to the idea of buddha-nature of the Uttaratantra.

Christian Charrier

Tsadra Foundation

Masters Degree in English and diploma in psycholinguistics; translator for Geshe Tengye, France; completed three-year retreat under Lama Gendun Rinpoche, le Bost, France; translation consultant for Tsadra Foundation, 2002–2003. Tsadra Foundation fellow since 2004.

Patrick Carré

Tsadra, Padmakara Translation Group

Masters and Ph.D. in Chinese (honorable mention) Paris VII; completed a three-year retreat with Pema Wangyal Rinpoché, 1981–1983; poet and author; former director of “Trésors du bouddhisme” collection at Éditions Fayard; member of Padmakara Translation Group. Tsadra Foundation fellow since 2002.

Uttaratantraśāstra: A New French Translation from Tibetan According to ‘Jam mgon Kong sprul’s Commentary

Christian and Patrick have recently finished a new translation of ‘Jam mgon Kong sprul’s commentary on the Uttaratantrashastra into French, Traité de la Continuité suprême du Grand Véhicule, which will be available at the symposium. Christian and Patrick will share insights from their work on this new translation.

As this is a third attempt at translating Maitreya’s root stanzas in French, we will give a brief survey of what has been done before and try to convey how our translation, in keeping with the meditative lineage of the works of Maitreya, aims at providing a direct access to the “heart matter” or the “reality of the quintessence” (snying po don), as Kong sprul often calls tathāgatagarbha.

Linguistically, our main challenge has been to keep a “classical” style with an “experiential” flavour and bridge the gap between flowery poetry and philosophical prose. As our choices indeed reflect our understanding of the treatise, this presentation will lead us to express our personal views of the contents.

Douglas Duckworth

Temple University

Douglas Duckworth is Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Temple University. He is the author of Mipam on Buddha-Nature: The Ground of the Nyingma Tradition (SUNY, 2008) and Jamgön Mipam: His Life and Teachings (Shambhala, 2011). He also introduced and translated Distinguishing the Views and Philosophies: Illuminating Emptiness in a Twentieth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Classic by Bötrül (SUNY, 2011).

Sentient Beings Within: Buddha-Nature and the Great Perfection

This paper describes the status of a sentient being in the buddha rather than how the buddha, or buddha-nature, exists in sentient beings. It focuses in particular on how buddha-nature is interpreted by Mi pham (1846-1912) in light of his tradition of the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen). The qualities of a buddha, as present or not at the time of a sentient being, is an issue closely associated with Madhyamaka debates in Tibet around “other-emptiness” (gzhan stong) and “self-emptiness” (rang stong). A position that accepts that the qualities of the buddha are primordially present, unconditioned, and thus not newly produced, is closely connected to the affirmation of an “other-emptiness” view. While Mi pham accepts this position, he also qualifies his assertion by emphasizing the way that the buddha-nature is also empty, and by making a distinction between the way things are (in which all of the buddha’s qualities are primordially present), and the way things appear (in which the qualities of a buddha are newly produced). This paper considers the way his unique treatment of buddha-nature reflects his legacy of the Great Perfection.

Alexander Gardner

Treasury of Lives

Alexander Gardner is the Director and Chief Editor of the Treasury of Lives, an online biographical encyclopedia of Tibet and the Himalayan Region. He completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan in 2007. From 2007 to 2016 he worked at the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, serving as their Executive Director from 2013 to 2016. His research interests are in Tibetan life writing and the cultural history of Kham in the nineteenth century.

Marcus Perman

Tsadra Foundation

Marcus Perman is the Director of Research at Tsadra Foundation, a nonprofit trust established to provide vital funding for the combined study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism in the west. Marcus has been developing a specialized library for Tibetan Buddhist translators in Boulder, Colorado and is the organizer of the Translation & Transmission Conference series.

The Buddha-Nature Project: Expanding Buddhist Literacy in the Digital Age

The purpose of the buddha-nature website is to provide a resource hub for trustworthy information for learning about and teaching the concept of buddha-nature, its associated texts, teachings, lineages, and relevant Buddhist ideas. Unique content will be shared on the site, but it will primarily act as a broker for other projects and authors that have already created quality materials, which we curate for specific audiences.

Online publishing of research and educational material have become a ubiquitous means of sharing information and analysis. Yet despite the Internet’s potential for greater accessibility, Digital Humanities projects almost universally replicate the limitations of print media. Despite the great flexibility of the Web, many projects in Tibetan and Buddhist studies remain targeted to a single audience; most often an elite community of scholars. By employing contemporary techniques of user experience design, open source technologies and collaborative tools, coupled with multimedia resources, this project extends itself beyond common examples of digital libraries and takes a step forward for users in the Digital Humanities.

David Higgins

University of Vienna

David Higgins received his doctorate from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland in 2012. He subsequently held a position as a Post-doc Research Fellow in the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna where he explored the relationship between Mahāmudrā and Madhyamaka philosophies in Bka’ brgyud scholasticism during the post-classical period (15th to 16th centuries). His research interests include Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and epistemology with a particular focus on Bka’ brgyud Mahāmudrā and Rnying ma Rdzogs chen doctrines and practices. His PhD thesis was published under the title Philosophical Foundations of Classical Rdzogs chen in Tibet: Investigating the Distinction Between Dualistic Mind (sems) and Primordial knowing (ye shes) (Vienna, WSTB no. 78, 2013). His recent publications include Mahāmudrā and the Middle Way: Post-classical Kagyü Discourses on Mind, Emptiness and Buddha Nature (Vienna, WSTB no. 90, 2016, 2 vols.) and Buddha Nature Reconsidered: The Eighth Karma pa’s Middle Path (Vienna, WSTB, forthcoming, 2 vols.), both of which were co-authored with Martina Drazczyk.

Buddha-Nature and Selfhood

The eighth Karma pa Mi bskyod rdo rje’s (1507–1554) prolific writings on tathāgatagarbha contain several extended disquisitions on the topic of how buddha-nature relates to different conceptions of selfhood. On the one hand, he broadly rejects, along the lines of standard Madhyamaka critiques of the belief in self (ātmagrāha), any equation between buddha-nature and a self. While his critiques take in the controversial current of early Indian buddha-nature theory that had equated buddha-nature with a true self, their primary target is ‘Gos Lo tsā ba gZhon nu dpal’s (1392-1481) identification of buddha-nature with a subtle self, which was allegedly made under the tutelage of Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa’s (1357–1419) conception of a subtle self. On the other hand, the Karma pa does accept a conception of authentic selfhood or transcendent perfection of self (ātmapāramitā) advanced in certain Tathāgatagarbha and Buddhist tantric texts that is said to be realized precisely through understanding selflessness. A touchstone of his attempt to reconcile these two seemingly antithetical views on the relationship between buddha-nature and selfhood is to regard them as complementary rather than contradictory. On this view, the negation of self is regarded as an indispensable moment in the discovery of authentic selfhood, which is in this case synonymous with dharmakāya and resultant buddha-nature. This presentation will explore the broad range of Indian and Tibetan views on buddha-nature and selfhood considered by Mi bskyod rdo rje and show how he presented and defended his own tradition’s position in relation or reaction to these.

Shenpen Hookham

Awakened Heart Sangha

Lama Shenpen Hookham is the founding lama of the Awakened Heart Sangha and principle teacher of the Living the Awakened Heart training. Lama Shenpen has trained for over 50 years in the Mahāmudrā & Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. She has spent over 12 years in retreat and has been a student of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, one of the foremost living masters of the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, since the late 70s. Lama Shenpen has translated a number of Tibetan texts into English for her students. On Khenpo Rinpoche’s instructions she produced a seminal study of the profound Buddha Nature doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism, published as The Buddha Within (SUNY 1991) and gained a doctorate in this from Oxford University. She is also the author of There’s More to Dying than Death (Windhorse 2006) plus several articles including The practical implications of the Doctrine of Buddha Nature (SOAS The Buddhist Forum Volume II, 1991) plus Spiritual Authority – a Buddhist perspective (Buddhist Christian Studies volume 30, 2010).

The impact of a Shentong (gzhan stong) interpretation of Tathāgatagarbha doctrine from the point of view of a western Buddhist practitioner

This paper briefly contrasts a Rangtong (rang stong) and Shentong (gzhan stong) interpretation of Buddhism and looks at how the Shentong interpretation of Tathāgatagarbha doctrine impacts on the understanding and practice of westerners, taking into account the way the translation of key terms into English is affecting the way they are understood and used. Some consideration is given to how Tathāgatagarbha doctrine relates to the earliest accounts of what the Buddha taught and how the seeds of the controversy around Tathāgatagarbha and the Shentong interpretation of Buddhism was present even at the time of the Buddha. This relates to how the tradition has interpreted the Buddha’s teaching on not-self over the millennia up until today. We have ended up with two very different versions of what Buddhism is about and what Tathāgatagarbha means and this relates to the impact Buddhism as a whole is likely to have on modern thought in general.

Hong Luo

Sichuan University

Hong Luo studied Indology and Buddhology at Peking University with Prof. Bangwei Wang. He was awarded Ph.D. in 2007 with a dissertation on the Pravrajyāvastu of Guṇaprabha’s Vinayasūtra. From 2007 to 2017, he was affiliated with the China Tibetology Research Center and mainly worked for the international cooperative projects on editing Sanskrit manuscripts preserved in Tibet. In 2015 and 2016, he taught as Numata visiting professor in the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna. From 2011 to 2014, he was visiting scholar of Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Hamburg, and Ryukoku University. In 2018, he became professor for religious studies at the Center for Tibetan Studies of Sichuan University.

Observing the Link between Self-awareness and Buddha Nature in Ratnākaraśānti’s Prajñāpāramitopadeśa

Self-awareness (svasaṃvedana/svasaṃvitti) plays a central role in Ratnākaraśānti’s doctrinal system, it is the locus of prakāśa. Focusing on the six summarizing verses at the end of the yathāvadbhāvikatāyāṃ cintāmayī prajñā section in the Prajñāpāramitopadeśa, this paper aims to 1) present Ratnākaraśānti’s understanding of self-awareness as sketched in these verses, 2) trace the possible sources of his sketch, and 3) observe the link between svasaṃvedana and buddha-nature in his doctrinal system.

Sina Joos

University of Vienna

Sina Joos received her M.A. in Tibetan studies, Chinese studies and History of Oriental Art in 2009 from the University of Bonn, Germany. Since 2016 she is a PhD candidate at the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna, Austria, under the supervision of Prof. Klaus-Dieter Mathes. Her research focuses on the gzhan stong doctrine of the jo nang school, while her teachers are mainly from the bka’ brgyud school of Tibetan Buddhism. Apart from her academic studies, she participated in the Translation Training Program at Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Kathmandu and works at the Kamalashila Instituteâ for Buddhist Studies and Meditation, interpreting for Tibetan Lamas as well as translating and editing texts for the practice sessions and seminars.

The Role of the Ratnagotravibhāga in Tā ra nā tha’s dBu ma theg mchog

Tā ra nā tha (1575-1635) is considered second in importance to Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292-1361) regarding the proclamation of gzhan stong and the number of his authored works. He clarified and expanded Dol po pa’s exegesis of gzhan stong unlike anyone before him. Tā ra nā tha’s dBu ma theg mchog covers a variety of topics relevant to the gzhan stong view, including essential Mahāyāna concepts that range from Yogācāra to Madhyamaka and from the Laṅkāvatārasūtra to the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra.

In the third chapter of the dBu ma theg mchog, Tā ra nā tha gives a detailed presentation of buddha-nature, which he equates to the dharmadhātu and suchness. The Ratnagotravibhāga is quoted extensively and exclusively in this chapter, while the Mahāyānasūtrālaṁkāra is quoted throughout the dBu ma theg mchog. This chapter is divided into nine main points, and the fourth point alone, referred to as “endowed with all aspects,” is illustrated by six verses from the Ratnagotravibhāga. However, also most of the other points (permanence, pervasion, wakefulness, unmixed/untainted and union) are attested by direct quotes from the Ratnagotravibhāga.

This study will examine the ways in which Tā ra nā tha utilizes the Ratnagotravibhāga in his dBu ma theg mchog to assert his understanding of buddha-nature as gzhan stong. It will be based on the root text as well as the commentary written by Tā ra nā tha’s disciple Ye shes rgya mtsho according to direct yearly instructions from Tā ra nā tha himself. As Tā ra nā tha is known to have expanded and systemized Dol po pa’s view, Tā ra nā tha’s position will also be compared to that of Dol po pa.

Khenpo Ngawang Jorden

International Buddhist Academy

Revisiting Gorampa on Buddha Nature

I will share some of my thoughts and understanding of Go rams pa’s interpretation of the concept of buddha-nature presented in his Supplement to the Three Vows. This text was written to critique and clarify what Go rams pa saw as misrepresentations and misunderstandings of the theory of buddha-nature that were prevalent throughout Tibet in the fifteenth century. The Jo nang pa school of Tibetan Buddhism in particular was one of the major subjects of his criticism, whose assertions on buddha-nature he refuted, presenting and defending his own interpretations.

Christopher V. Jones

St. Peter’s College, Oxford

Christopher V. Jones is a Postdoctoral Fellow of the British Academy at the University of Oxford, where he teaches topics in Indian and East Asian religion. His doctoral research, completed in 2015, concerned the breadth of Indian tathāgatagarbha literature as it survives in Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan sources, and its relationship to Indian discourse about the self (ātman). His first book, The Buddhist Self: On Tathāgatagarbha and Ātman, is due for publication late in 2019 with University of Hawai’i Press.

Selfhood, Secrecy, Singularity: Reassessing the Early Life of the Tathāgatagarbha in India

The early history of buddha-nature teaching in India is in the process of some reassessment. Michael Radich’s contention that there is good reason to take the Mahāparinirvāṇamahāsūtra as our earliest source for an account of the tathāgatagarbha invites a fresh look at the wider corpus of Indian literature concerned with this expression, and with it the affirmation that what is essential to a Buddha (buddhadhātu) abides in all sentient beings. My research has focused on a revised trajectory of how buddha-nature was conceptualized in the first five hundred years of the Common Era, informed by the hypothetical primacy of Indian sources that explain tathāgatagarbha to refer to the permanent, indestructible buddhadhātu, and which teach that this constitutes nothing less than the Buddha’s account of the self (ātman).

I contend that the most likely trajectory of buddha-nature thought in India entailed a creative reimagining of the expression tathāgatagarbha away from contentious ‘ātmavādin‘ origins. With reference to the Indian tathāgatagarbha corpus delineated by Takasaki Jikidō, this paper will explore a revised picture of the development of early tathāgatagarbha thought by attending to several related themes: the relationship between buddha-nature and discourse about the self, the claim that it constitutes a ‘secret’ revealed by the Buddha – a complement to the teaching that there is only a single vehicle (ekayāna) to liberation – and the extent to which buddha-nature should be articulated in terms of the original purity of the mind.

Kazuo Kano

Komazawa University, Japan

Dr. Kano is an associate professor at Komazawa University in Japan and a specialist of Sanskrit and Tibetan tathāgatagarbha literature. His particular research interests focus on philosophical interpretations of the Ratnagotravibhāga.

Examples of the Term tathāgatagarbha Appearing in Indic Tantric Literature

This presentation focuses on the term tathāgatagarbha appearing in tantric scriptures and commentaries composed by Indic authors. In general, it has been pointed out that the tathāgatagarbha teaching has a strong doctrinal impact on tantric teachings, but actual examples of tathāgatagarbha appearing in tantric literature are rather rare in comparison with other terms of non-tantric Mahāyāna origin, such as the five jñānas of the Buddha, buddha’s bodies, etc. Through this investigation I shall clarify purposes of integration of this term into tantric contexts in each example. I have in my previous article in 2012 dealt with the literature of the Yoginītantra and the Highest yogatantra classes, and will here include those of Yogatantra-class.

Casey Kemp

University of Vienna

Casey Kemp is a translator and editor of Buddhist texts. She received her Master’s degree from Oxford University in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, and has worked closely with the Drikung Kagyu monastic community in Europe and Asia. She is completing her PhD dissertation on the concept of luminosity in the early Tibetan Mahāmudrā tradition through the University of Vienna and has translated and edited for 84000 and is a Snow Lion editor at Shambhala Publications.

The Luminous Basis for Buddhahood: ’Jig rten mgon po’s Pith Instructions for Merging the Nature of Mind with the Dharmakāya

This paper will present an overview and analysis of ’Jig rten mgon po’s (1143–1217) explanation of luminosity (prabhāsvaratā;’od gsal ba) from his Mahāmudrā perspective in terms of basis, path, and fruit. This is most clearly outlined in his ’Od gsal rnam lnga gcig tu bsre ba’i man ngag, a pith instruction on merging (bsre ba), a genre of Bka’ brgyud teachings generally associated with the nā ro chos drug tradition. While chos drug instructions on luminosity tend to focus on deep sleep tantric practices, this text outlines luminosity in terms of mind’s true nature, which is to be pointed out, recognized, and ultimately merged with the dharmakāya. ’Jig rten mgon po offers a five-fold typology of luminosity: the luminosity of the basis, the path, dream, the bar do, and the ultimate. In this text, he explicitly explains that the luminosity of the basis is the nature of mind, described in terms of buddha-nature, and is none other than the dharmakāya itself. ’Jig rten mgon po goes on to explain the process of “merging” this basis with the path luminosity by way of pointing out instructions, which subsequently merges with the dream and bar do states naturally through direct recognition. Finally, this (collective) recognition of the basis is to be merged with the ultimate luminosity, the dharmakāya. ’Jig rten mgon po thus offers a framework for how the different types of tantric and non-tantric luminosity as understood in the early Bka’ brgyud Mahāmudrā tradition can be merged by taking the nature of mind as both the basis for Buddhahood and ultimately inseparable from the fruit of the dharmakāya.

Seiji Kumagai

Kyoto University

Seiji Kumagai was born in 1980 in Hiroshima (Japan). He studied Buddhist philosophy and received his Ph.D. in 2009 from Kyoto University. In 2011, he became an assistant professor at the Hakubi Center for Advanced Research of Kyoto University. Since 2013, he has been Uehiro Associate Professor at Kokoro Research Center of Kyoto University from then until the present. Since 2017, he has been a divisional director of the Department of Bhutanese Studies at Kokoro Research Center. He was invited by University of Vienna as Numata Professor in 2018.

His field of research is Buddhist Madhyamaka philosophy in India, Tibet, and Bhutan, and also that of Bon religion. He has also conducted research on the history of Tibetan and Bhutanese Buddhism. His most notable publications include books such as The Two Truths in Bon (Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2011), Bhutanese Buddhism and Its Culture (Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2014), and Buddhism, Culture and Society in Bhutan (Kathmandu: Vajra Publications, 2018), as well as numerous academic articles on Indo-Himalayan Buddhism and Bon.

How the Concepts of “buddha-nature” (Tathāgatagarbha) and “innate enlightenment” (Hongaku) were interpreted by Shinran (1173-1263), Founder of the Jōdo-Shin-Shū School of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism.

Japan is one of the most prominent Buddhist countries. Located in the Far East, this country’s Buddhism has developed many peculiar characteristics and concepts. One of these specific ideas is the theory of “innate enlightenment” (hongaku), which is closely related in meaning to the term “buddha-nature” (tathāgatagarbha).

The theory of “buddha-nature” insists that since all sentient beings possess the essence of Buddha, they are all capable of becoming enlightened in the future. On the other hand, the theory of “innate enlightenment” admits as a fact that all sentient beings are innately enlightened, or that all phenomena are a manifestation of Buddha. The extended interpretation of the theory of “buddha-nature” was highly developed in Japanese Tendai school.

The unique theory of “innate enlightenment” was actually criticized by Japanese Buddhist monks both inside and outside the Tendai school. For example, the theory does not appear in any of the attested treatises of Genshin (942-1017), a highly influential representative of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism (although it does appear in forged works attributed to him). Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Jōdo-Shū school, took a contrary position against the idea of “innate enlightenment” as admitted by modern Buddhologists.

However, Yoshiro Tamura insists that Honen’s disciples, including Shinran (1173-1263), the founder of Jōdo-Shin-Shū school, embraced the theory of “innate enlightenment” against their master’s position. Japanese Buddhologists after Tamura have also defended that Shinran was influenced by such a theory to a greater or lesser extent.

However, the current speaker has been able to prove that Shinran, as well as his master Honen, clearly showed a negative attitude against the theory of “innate enlightenment”, although he used terms which are often regarded to be associated with the theory. This presentation will overview Shinran’s position concerning the theories of “buddha-nature” and “innate enlightenment”.

Katrin Querl

University of Vienna

Katrin Querl holds a Master’s degree in Tibetology, Indology, and Religious Studies from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich, Germany. From 2011 to 2017 she studied Buddhist philosophy at the Kagyu College in Dehradun, India where she completed the first six years of the traditional monastic curriculum. Katrin is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (ISTB) at the University of Vienna, writing her thesis on Tibetan presentations of the Three Wheels of Dharma (chos ‘khor rim pa gsum). She also collaborates with several translation projects such as the Vikramashila Translation Project, the Rinchenpal Translation Project, and the Buddhist Translation Studies project (BTS) at the University of Vienna.

Preliminary Notes on the Notion of Buddha Nature in the Single Intention

‘Jig rten mgon po Rin chen dpal or ‘Jig rten gsum mgon (1143-1217) was one of the most influential figures in the intellectual milieu of 12th and 13th century Tibet. Although his teachings that were compiled by his students into the text corpus known as the Single Intention (dGongs gcig) were highly contested by some of his contemporaries, most famously by Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga’ rgyal mtshan (1182-1251), on the contrary, other scholars like ‘Gos Lo tsā ba gZhon nu dpal (1392-1481) reportedly based their Mahāmudrā hermeneutics and exegesis of the Uttaratantra on his works.

Even though there is no independent work on buddha-nature by ‘Jig rten gsum mgon, the topic is widely discussed in the Single Intention. Relevant themes include the relation between buddha-nature and emptiness, the qualities that buddha-nature possesses, that it is of virtuous nature and worthy of dedication, and the defense of a single potential (rigs gcig) and a single vehicle (theg pa gcig).

Drawing on texts such as the two earliest commentaries on the Single Intention by direct disciples of ‘Jig rten gsum mgon and other records of his teachings, this paper provides an overview of this pivotal thinker’s view on buddha-nature. It thus aims to shed further light on the early Mahāmudrā tradition of Tibet, with a particular focus on its meditative approach (sgom lugs) to buddha-nature literature.

Kurtis Schaeffer

University of Virginia

Kurtis R. Schaeffer is the Frances Myers Ball Professor of Religion and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is a student of Buddhist history and culture, with a special interest in the spiritual literature of Tibet and the Himalayas. He is the author or editor of nine books, including the largest anthology of Tibetan literature in English and, most recently, a translation of a life of the Buddha from Bhutan. Schaeffer co-directs the half-century old Tibetan Buddhist studies graduate program at the University of Virginia, and co-directs the Religion, Race, and Democracy Lab at UVA. He is the president of the Board of Directors of the Buddhist Digital Resource Center.

Notes from the Cave: ‘Jigs med gling pa on buddha-nature

‘Jigs med gling pa (1730-1798) was a key figure in the development of late-period Great Perfection thought in Tibet. His major philosophical work, the Treasury of Precious Qualities (Yon tan rin po che’i mdzod), was much-studied in the years after its composition in 1789. The Treasury’s presentation of Great Perfection ontology is grounded (if you will) in buddha-nature. Perhaps more interestingly, much of ‘Jigs med gling pa’s debate with interlocutors about Great Perfection revolves around buddha-nature rather than Great Perfection per se. ‘Jigs med gling pa was also deeply skeptical about the possibility of expressing anything of value about buddha-nature, as opposed to the value of experiencing buddha-nature for oneself in meditation. “The best commentary on buddha-nature I’ve ever seen is the one I made in my cave!” he quips. This paper portrays ‘Jigs med gling pa’s antinomian approach to buddha-nature in the context of Great Perfection thought, as well as his more ephemeral bits of commentary, conversation, and opinion about buddha-nature that can be found scattered throughout his life writings and occasional pieces.

Michael Sheehy

University of Virginia

Michael R. Sheehy, Ph.D., is the Director of Scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center and Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. His work gives attention to the cultural history of marginalized traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, the thought and literature of contemplative traditions in Tibet, and contributions of Buddhism to discourses in the cognitive sciences and cultural psychology. He is co-editor with Klaus-Dieter Mathes of The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet (SUNY 2019).

Tantric Zhentong Visions of Tathāgatagarbha in Tibetan Kālacakra Yoga Manuals

This paper investigates the concept of śūnyatā-bimba (stong gzugs), “images of emptiness” or expressions of emptiness in the Kālacakra Tantra, and gives attention to how this phenomenon was interpreted by the Tibetan Kālacakra master Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292-1361) and his immediate disciples to be direct expressions of tathāgatagarbha. We are interested in the tantric epistemology of these “images of emptiness,” textual connections to tathāgatagarbha, and correlative contemplative experiences that are described within Tibetan meditation manuals on the Kālacakra sixfold yoga. As we find in Dol po pa’s writings, as well as by later Jonang authors, these expressions of tathāgatagarbha are observable and experiential, and come about through the careful execution of the yogic procedures explicated in the vajrayoga practice of the Kālacakra. We explore the process of how these expressions are said to be experienced through the precise process of withdrawing one’s sense faculties from mundane stimuli, hence rescinding one’s involvement with objectification through a threefold practice of isolating the body, voice, and mind (dben pa gsum), and how this results in the philosophical and contemplative visions of tantric zhentong (sngags gi gzhan stong). To contextualize Dol po pa’s claims, we analyze passages from early meditation procedural manuals on the sixfold yoga practices composed by two of his closest disciples, Phyogs las rnam rgyal (1306-1386) and Lo tsā ba Blo gros dpal (1313-1391), interlinear commentarial writings on the Kālacakra Tantra, prescriptive guidebooks about remedying blockages to meditative realization, and autobiographical accounts of yogins to better understand the phenomenon of these expressions of tathāgatagarbha and their categorical construction as contemplative experience within Tibetan literature. In so doing, we analyze Buddhist doctrinal relationships of emptiness and tathāgatagarbha, and probe the epistemological nature of these expressions to be nature-born experiences, external referents, visionary “images of buddhas,” and/or intentional objects of meditation.

Jacqueline Stone

Princeton University

Jacqueline Stone joined the Princeton faculty in 1990. She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in Buddhism and Japanese religions. Her chief research field is Japanese Buddhism of the medieval and modern periods. Her current research areas include death and dying in Buddhist cultures, Buddhism and nationalism, and traditions of the Lotus Sutra, particularly Tendai and Nichiren. She is the author of Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism, which received a 2001 American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion. She has co-edited The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations (with Bryan J. Cuevas, 2007), Readings of the Lotus Sutra (with Stephen F. Teiser, 2009), and other volumes of collected essays. Her newest book, Right Thoughts at the Last Moment: Buddhism and Deathbed Practices in Early Medieval Japan (working title), is forthcoming from University of Hawai’i Press. She has been president of the Society for the Study of Japanese Religions and co-chair of the Buddhism section of the American Academy of Religion. Currently she is vice president of the editorial board of the Kuroda Institute for the Study of Buddhism and serves on the advisory board of the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies.

From Buddha Nature to Original Enlightenment “Contemplating Suchness” in Medieval Japan

Most theories of buddha-nature circulating in medieval Japan entailed the proposition that all phenomena, being empty, are nondual and mutually inclusive, each encompassing and pervading all others without losing its individual character; thus the “buddha” is somehow present in ordinary beings. To many Buddhist thinkers, this suggested the possibility that buddhahood could be attained quickly. “Realizing buddhahood with this very body” (sokushin jōbutsu)—what it might mean, its preconditions, and the practices for achieving it—was vociferously debated. Concern for rapid attainment culminated in the Tendai Buddhist doctrine of original enlightenment (hongaku hōmon), which asserts that buddhahood is not a goal at all but the true status of all things: Suffering arises from the failure to realize this, while liberation lies in the insight, or even the faith, that one is buddha already. Hongaku thought has often been disparaged in modern scholarship as an uncritical world affirmation that, in valorizing all phenomena as expressions of original enlightenment, in effect negated the need for practice and legitimated sinful acts. It is more accurately understood, however, as a radical inversion of practice and attainment: buddhahood is not a future achievement but inherent from the outset, and practice is not a means to realize buddhahood but its paradigmatic expression. This paper will examine how original enlightenment thought grew out of major strands of East Asian Mahāyāna thinking about buddha-nature. It will also illustrate some of its defining features as seen through a twelfth-century text known as Shinnyo kan (“Contemplation of Suchness”), which asserts that buddhahood lies precisely in contemplating self and others—humans and animals, pebbles and trees—as buddhas, just as they are.

Dorji Wangchuk

University of Hamburg

After completing a nine-year course in the study of Tibetan Buddhism from a traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastic seminary in South India (i.e. sNga ’gyur mtho slob mdo sngags rig pa’i ’byung gnas gling, Bylakuppe, Mysore), Dorji Wangchuk studied Classical Indology (first major, with a focus on Buddhist Studies) and Tibetology (second major) at the University of Hamburg (MA, 2002). He wrote his doctoral dissertation on “The Resolve to Become a Buddha: A Study of the Bodhicitta Concept in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism” and received his PhD from the same University in 2005. Between 1992 and 1996, he taught Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in monastic seminaries in India. Since 1998, he has been teaching and researching at the University of Hamburg in various capacities. He also taught a term each at the University of Copenhagen and McGill University. Currently he is a professor for Tibetology at the Department of Indian and Tibetan Studies, Asia-Africa Institute, Faculty of Humanities, University of Hamburg.

Rong-zom-pa on the Tathāgatagarbha and Pratītyasamutpāda Theories

The critique of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine by the two Japanese scholars Shirō Matsumoto and Noriaki Hakamaya has compelled scholars engaged in the study of Buddhism to reflect on the Buddhist status of the doctrine. While the agenda and the underlying motives of these two scholars may be different, their dismissal of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine as non-Buddhist may have been inspired by some position found in Tibetan Buddhism. To my knowledge, however, Tibetan Buddhist scholars have never gone to the extent of apodictically rejecting the theory as non-Buddhist while some Tibetan Buddhist (e.g. Dol-po-pa’s or Jo-nang-pa’s) interpretation thereof has certainly been. One of the most significant criticisms of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine is that it contradicts or disregards the doctrine of dependent arising (pratītyasamutpāda), which has often been eulogized as the quintessence of the teachings of the Buddha. In this paper, I wish to (re)examine how the eleventh-century rNying-ma scholar Rong-zom Chos-kyi-bzang-po interprets the tathāgatagarbha theory particularly in relation to the pratītyasamutpāda theory and whether or not he viewed the tathāgatagarbha and pratītyasamutpāda theories to be mutually contradictory.

Michael Zimmermann

University of Hamburg

Michael Zimmermann studied Classical Indology, Tibetology and Japanese Studies at the University of Hamburg and earned his doctorate with a thesis on the origin of the teaching of buddha-nature in India. He spent several years studying at universities in Kyoto and Tokyo; later he worked for the Nepalese-German Manuscript Preservation Project of the German Research Foundation in Hamburg and Kathmandu, where from 2002 to 2003 he also headed the Nepal Research Center. After four years as assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Stanford (USA) and as director of the Stanford Center for Buddhist Studies, in 2007 he became professor for Indian Buddhism at the Asien-Afrika-Institut of the University of Hamburg. His research focus is Indian Mahayana Buddhism in all its forms of expression, but in particular its textual history based on the canonical traditions in India, Tibet and China. He also deals with questions of Buddhist ethics such as the relationship of Buddhism to governance and violence. Another of his interests are the developments regarding contemporary Buddhism in East and West. Zimmermann co-directs the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies at Hamburg University, an institutional forum promoting teaching, research, dialogue, academic exchange and public outreach in Buddhist Studies.

New research on the concept of buddha-nature in India: the beginnings

The idea that all living beings carry a buddha embryo within themselves or already have full-fledged buddha-nature is one of the most pervasive ideas in the history of Buddhist thought. Buddhist thinkers have been struggling with the different concepts based on such a thought and its meanings for soteriology and spiritual training. In the 1990s the traditions that promote the idea of buddha-nature were heavily criticized and denounced as being non-Buddhist by a Japanese group of scholars who thought of themselves as “true” followers of Buddhism which, so they claimed, always must be “critical” with regard to its underlying philosophical structure. Such normative claims have lost their pervasive power nowadays. During the last decade, research on the earliest history of buddha-nature thought in India has gained a new momentum. Early texts promoting buddha-nature thought in India have been reconsidered and new theories with regard to the origins of the theory of buddha-nature were formulated.

The talk will summarize some of these new findings and discuss possible reasons for why the idea that all sentient beings have buddha-nature possibly made its appearance. It will be argued that the idea is an integral part of Buddhist intellectual history and that it can be linked to other concepts found in older Buddhist writings.

Tuesday, July 16

Welcome Reception

17:00 Evening Welcome Event
Keynote Speech: Donald S. Lopez, Jr.
Dinner and Official Welcome from the organizer, Klaus-Dieter Mathes, head of the Department of South Asian, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies
Location: Alte Kapelle

Wednesday, July 17

Day One

9:00 Session 1: Klaus-Dieter Mathes & Filippo Brambilla

10:30 ∙ Tea Break

11:00 Session 2: Martina Draszczyk & Khenpo Tamphel

12:30 ∙ Lunch

14:30 Session 3: Christian Charrier & Patrick Carré & Douglas Duckworth

16:00 ∙ Tea Break

16:30 Session 4: Alexander Gardner & Marcus Perman & David Higgins

18:00 ∙ End of Day

Thursday, July 18

Day Two

9:00 Session 5: Shenpen Hookham & Hong Luo

10:30 ∙ Tea Break

11:00 Session 6: Sina Joos & Khenpo Ngawang Jorden

12:30 ∙ Lunch

14:30 Session 7: Christopher V. Jones & Kazuo Kano

16:00 ∙ Tea Break

16:30 Session 8: Casey Kemp & Seiji Kumagai

18:00 ∙ End of Day

Friday, July 19

Day Three

9:00 Session 9: Katrin Querl & Kurtis Schaeffer

10:30 ∙ Tea Break

11:00 Session 10: Michael Sheehy & Jacqueline Stone

12:30 ∙ Lunch

14:30 Session 11: Dorji Wangchuk & Michael Zimmermann

16:00 ∙ Tea Break

16:30 Session 2: Closing Discussion: Reflection on State of the Field

18:00 ∙ End of Day
Closing Dinner TBA